Amherst Magazine

Cultural Roots

Artist Sonya Clark ’89 uses hair to communicate black history. Her work is on display through mid-May at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City.

By Katherine Jamieson

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As a response to the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy, Clark painted a Confederate flag and stitched in black thread to look like hair. After cornrowing the black thread to create stripes resembling those on the American flag, she created knots from twisted hair, which became stars on the flag.

[Textiles] Sonya Clark’s first memory of making art is decorating a freshly painted wall in her parents’ Washington, D.C., home at 4 years old. Outraged screams from her mother ended her illicit scribbling, but she talked her way out of certain punishment by explaining the logic behind her misbehavior: she was enjoying the pull of pencil against flat paint, the physical experience of creation. The incident foreshadowed both her artistic and academic careers. “I learned that if you can bring someone to the experience of art, you might be able to change her perspective,” Clark says.

A psychology major, Clark had no plans to pursue a career in art until she took an art history course at Amherst with Professor Rowland Abiodun, who sparked her interest in the West African roots of Caribbean culture. Clark, who has a Trinidadian father and a Jamaican mother, became fascinated by the concept of material culture, or how objects hold stories. “Objects are either mirrors or sponges; they reflect or absorb something about us,” she says.

As a graduation present, Clark’s parents sent her to Côte d’Ivoire to study the art and history of the region, including textiles and masquerades. The program paired Clark with an instructor who taught her to weave on a traditional loom. “Since we shared no language, he would weave, then unweave his work, then make me weave it again,” says Clark, who had learned to sew from her grandmother, a tailor.

Textiles merged Clark’s interest in material culture with her desire to create easily accessible art, she says: “Cloth is intimate—it’s cultural, personal and political.” Next, she began to explore fibers that are even more intimate to people: those that contain their DNA. “Hair was the first fiber that people manipulated for aesthetic and functional reasons,” she says.

For one piece, Pearl of Mother, Clark fashioned a ball from her mother’s white hair and set it in the palm of a hand woven from her own black hair. She uses only her own hair or that of people she knows, and she’s found that even using her own hair has historical implications. “I’m in a body that, 150 years ago, may have been sold, and now I’m using part of my body to make artwork that is sold.”

For a recent piece, Clark, who chairs craft/material studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, painted a Confederate flag and then stitched black thread into the canvas to look like hair. After cornrowing the black thread to create stripes resembling those on the American flag, she created Bantu knots (knots made from twisted hair), which became stars on the flag. Lowery Stokes Sims, curator of the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City, wrote in a 2009 issue of Fiber­arts on Clark’s use of hair to communicate black history: “Clark alerts us to the complexities of tonsorial politics...where straightened hair, ‘natural’ hair, Afros and dreads in different eras expressed how blacks situated themselves in society and navigated strategies of assimilation, entitlement and enfranchisement.”

Clark, whose work has been in museums worldwide, has pieces on display through May 15, 2011, in the Global Africa exhibit at the Museum of Arts & Design. She’s also won a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship to research combs, hair and hairstyles for the National Museum of African Art and the National Museum of Natural History.

Jamieson is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in The New York Times and Ms. Magazine.

Photo courtesy of Sonya Clark '89